Montclair — “It’s important that people understand where their water comes from.”
So said Doug Ruccione, a senior at Montclair State University and the moderator of the first ever “Water Resources and the New Jersey Highlands Conference,” held at the university on April 7 and sponsored by the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.
The conference featured New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex, Morris) as keynote speaker along with a number of academics and environmental experts.
Ruccione explained how he’d become intimate with the issue through his work with Ringwood C.A.R.E.S., an environmental group trying to clean up the Ringwood Mine Superfund site, contaminated in the 1960’s by Ford Motors dumping of toxic waste. The polluted site is one mile upstream from Montague Reservoir, which provides water for one-third of New Jersey.
“People need to understand things that are affecting their water supply,” Ruccione said.
“I’m happy we’re able to come out here and Montclair is hosting it and we’re able to bring up the importance of the Highlands to protecting the water supply,” said conference host and coalition member Sean Gilson.
“It’s such a difficult time for all of us who feel strongly about the environment,” McKeon said in his presentation.
McKeon pointed out that funding for environmental rights groups has dropped significantly in New Jersey during the tenure of Gov. Chris Christie, and federal funding for environmental projects is seriously threatened by the policies of President Donald Trump. In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency had a budget of $479 million; in 2017 that budget has dropped to $217 million.
“Nine million people in this state and more than half get their water from the Highlands,” McKeon said. “That’s our advantage… as long as we don’t blow it.”
After McKeon’s address, a panel discussed the issue.
“The water supply for 70 percent of the state does not need much work,” said Elliott Ruga, policy director for the Highlands Coalition. “The average cost of water in the Highlands is the fourth lowest in the U.S. We have this water supply.”
Meiyin Wu, biology professor at Montclair State biology, addressed the cascading effect of altering the water ecosystem.
“Any change in an ecosystem doesn’t change just that. A little tiny change will cause much greater change,” she said.
Speakers pointed to the effect lawn fertilizers and other forms of pollution have on the water supply.
“If water quality goes down, taxes will go up [in order to clean the water]; we have to pay for it somehow,” Wu said.
The line separating academic research from political action was emphasized.
“There is a very strong lack of communication between the two communities. At Montclair we say it is important for scientists to go out and make their findings known,” Wu said.
“Politicians are interested in end-effects and costs.” she said.
The politics of water inevitably led to talk of the upcoming New Jersey gubernatorial elections. Panelists were optimistic.
“The current field of likely candidates are very sincere in wanting to do positive things for the environment,” Ruga said.
“Things are going to change in the next nine months," said Ben Spinelli, principal of Greener by Design. "I would be very optimistic we are not going to go through another eight years of nothing getting done with respect to the environment."
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